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‘E.T.’ . . . Call Sears : Giant Retailer Uses Giant Film to Ring in Holiday Ratings, Shoppers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Sears, Roebuck & Co. could plan your Thanksgiving holiday, it would probably go something like this: After the traditional turkey feast on Thursday, you would gather your kids around the television set at 8 p.m. to watch the newly created “Sears Family Theater” on CBS, featuring the television premiere of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic, “E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial.”

Then on Friday, you would pack up your children and head to any one of 868 Sears stores across the nation to receive a free “E.T.” poster and have the kids’ photo taken in front of a panoramic, moon-filled sky with a replica of E.T. And as long as you’re there, you would pick up the perfect holiday gift for the kids: a low-price videocassette of “E.T.,” available only at Sears.

Oh, and then you would drop a bundle of money buying Christmas presents throughout the rest of the store.

All this renewed “E.T."-mania is the result of a reported $40-million gamble Sears made with MCA/Universal in September. The landmark deal gave Sears exclusive television and video rights to “E.T.,” the highest-grossing film and top-selling video title of all time, for years to come--although neither party will specify just how long that is.

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“This means Sears has planted their flag squarely in the heart of Hollywood,” said David Weitzner, executive vice president of marketing for MCA.

Sears has been suffering through several years of decline in its retail operations. For the fourth quarter of 1990, which includes the important Christmas shopping season, Sears profits dropped to a reported $378.8 million, from $602.1 million a year earlier.

So it’s no coincidence that Thursday night’s broadcast of “E.T.” touches down on the eve of what retail analysts report to be the heaviest shopping day of the year, when millions of Sears credit card-carrying Americans get a jump on Christmas shopping.

That’s why the Chicago-based retail chain hired the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather to create a special series of commercials that will stress traditional values throughout the 2 1/2-hour “E.T.” telecast to draw shoppers into Sears stores. That’s also why “E.T.” will be televised in Canada, where Sears operates numerous retail outlets, and why a dubbed version of “E.T.” will be broadcast nationally and in Mexico on Friday on the Spanish-language television network Telemundo, to reach Sears’ many Latino shoppers.

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“We’re always on the look to find different ways, inclusive ways, to reach the consumer,” said Scott Harding, national manager of advertising for Sears. “We’ve been looking at our Thanksgiving time frame for some years, at how we can make a more meaningful impact, since we have large shopping days following the holiday.”

The new “Sears Family Theater” will air periodically around major holidays and present a variety of family-oriented entertainment, Harding said. To start off, Sears executives believe they obtained the perfect holiday film in “E.T.,” with the little alien’s heart-light glowing bittersweet messages of love and family. There’s even E.T.'s gentle reminder to “Phone home.”

MCA’s Weitzner said that the Thanksgiving air date is what convinced Spielberg to relinquish the TV rights to his cherished film, which grossed a record $400 million in the United States and sold an unrivaled 14 million videocassettes. “Steven’s position was born of his desire to present ‘E.T.’ on Thanksgiving. He sees the presentation as a diamond in the most beautiful of settings,” Weitzner said.

The only way for Sears to guarantee that “E.T.” would air on Thanksgiving was to arrange a deal granting the company proprietary rights. By offering one of the networks pre-sold advertising on a movie with the notoriety of “E.T.,” Sears was in a good bargaining position to dictate the film’s time slot. Normally, the situation is reversed, with a network or cable channel purchasing broadcast rights and selling the time to advertisers.

In many ways, the Sears deal is a throwback to the old days of television when sponsors regularly produced programming and assumed the risks: few viewers, few shoppers. In this case, Sears approached CBS with “E.T.” and will pay the network an estimated $2 million to $3 million for 12 minutes worth of advertising time. The deal is for one broadcast only; if “E.T.” does poorly on CBS, Sears is free next year to shop its annual “E.T.” broadcast to another network.

Scheduling “E.T.” on Thursday is also a gamble for Sears because ratings traditionally take a dive on Thanksgiving night, when millions of viewers turn off their sets to spend time with their families.

“There’s obviously an audience of TV viewers on Thanksgiving,” argued Peter Tortorici, senior vice president of programming for CBS. “For example, on Thanksgiving Day, football games post very high ratings. So the question isn’t whether there are audiences on Thanksgiving. The question is what can you give those audiences to bring them together in front of their television sets?”

Many TV analysts are not convinced that “E.T.” is the Thanksgiving beacon Sears and CBS hope for. Joel Segal, executive vice president of national broadcasting for the advertising agency McCann-Erickson in New York, pointed to the record number of “E.T.” videocassettes sold: “That’s 14 million homes that probably won’t tune in, right there. Why would you watch ‘E.T.’ on network television if you can watch it uninterrupted and unexpurgated on your own?”

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“ ‘E.T.’ has already made its rounds in theaters and on video,” observed Hal Vogel, an entertainment analyst for Merrill Lynch in New York. “How much merchandising can (Sears) really expect to do? I mean, 1992 is going to be the 10th year ‘E.T.’ has been out. It’s been so exposed that there’s a real question mark as to how important this telecast will be.”

Local Sears outlets that have set up their in-store “E.T.” displays early report a different story.

“I think once the movie gets rerun, the kinship that kids feel toward E.T. will return,” said Allen Oblow, manager of the Sears store in Burbank. “I know as we were setting up here, there were an awful lot of kids standing and pointing their fingers saying, ‘E.T.! E.T.!’ So I think that relationship is going to be reunited.”

MCA has drawn some heat from the video industry for its decision to sell “E.T.” videocassettes exclusively in Sears stores at a new list price of $14.99. Since its 1988 release, “E.T.” has carried a $24.95 suggested list price. MCA is offering video retailers and distributors the chance to exchange extra copies of “E.T.” for credit.

“I’m not real happy about this,” said Gary H. Messenger, owner of North American Video, which has nine video stores in North Carolina. “The supply side of this industry has usurped and bypassed the traditional video market and given an exclusive to someone who has never, ever been there to support the video business when it was down. This is the time of year the traditional video outlet, the video retailer, would like to have ‘E.T.’ on their shelves.”

Weitzner at MCA defended his studio’s decision: “I must tell you, the number of shoppers who will be in Sears stores during the holiday period boggles the mind. Now, don’t you think from a merchandising point of view it makes a great deal of sense to have a company like Sears committed with its marketing clout to promote and push our videos, rather than have them sit there as just one of hundreds and hundreds of titles that you find in a video store?”

Although Sears won’t divulge how many shoppers pass through its doors during the holidays, the company does claim that millions of people a day shop at Sears and that the retail chain with its various subsidiaries does business with 70% of American households.

“While it’s beneficial for the title and the store, I don’t think it’s beneficial for the industry,” said a video marketing executive for another studio. “I don’t think ‘The Wizard of Oz’ should only be available at JC Penney, because what would it do to the retailers and distributors who have supported us over the years? (MCA) is certainly not creating good will.”

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If “E.T.” does get huge ratings and move videocassettes, expect to see more marriages between movie studios and Fortune 500 companies. One network executive suggested that such deals may be an emerging trend, explaining that in this depressed economy, “there are going to be a lot of new ways that the networks will find to attract audiences and fund shows. And advertiser-supported shows are certainly one of those alternatives.”

Weitzner said several companies have already contacted him about acquiring broadcast rights to other MCA titles. In the past few years, Sears, K mart and McDonald’s have joined forces with TV networks to market their products, but this time Sears has shifted the traditional balance of power.

“In all those other campaigns,” CBS’ Tortorici said, “the heart of the deal was the network perspective: ‘It’s premiere week, how do we get more people to watch our network?’ This time the perspective is from the retailer side: ‘OK, it’s a holiday, how do we get more people in the store?

“Everybody says advertiser-sponsored programs are too expensive--until they work. When they work, they’re the biggest bargain in the world. They’re high risk and high stakes.”

* A HOLIDAY FEAST

In addition to turkey and dressing, Thanksgiving also includes a television lineup of parades, series marathons, football games and classic movies. F13


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